On November 27, 1935, Carl Otis filed a patent application for what was simply called "Display", a bubbling table top sign and the first of several patents he was to hold. It was granted on September 26, 1939 and was assigned #2,174,446. This patent was to become the basis of his new idea: small, bubbling lights specifically adapted for use on Christmas trees.
Carl's idea was not new-in fact, sealed glass tubes with a bubbling liquid inside were first demonstrated by Benjamin Franklin. Several earlier patents were granted for bubbling signs, the first of which to Raffaele Floravanti on February 18, 1936 (#2,031,409), and another to Alfonse Kaufman on that same date (#2,031,416). Also, a patent for a bubbling sign employing different colored tubes was granted on June 20, 1939 to Philip Rosenblatt as number 2,162,897. Each of these patents, though similar in many respects, were apparently dissimilar enough for each to be considered "new" by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Here are the four pages of the original patent granted to Carl Otis for his sign:
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One of the major differences between Carl's sign and the others was the method he employed to evenly distribute and generate bubbles. He used a porous wooden plug, permanently wedged in the bottom of the tube. This plug served to form many small chambers of the bubbling chemical, which effectively spread it out thinly and closely to the heat source, allowing for a much faster boiling time. This particular feature was to become a major factor in later legal developments with regard to the validity of Mr. Otis' patents.
Even before the above patent was granted, Carl was working on his concept for the Christmas tree bubble light, which he called an "Ornamental Illuminating Device ." His second patent application was filed in early November of 1941, and was finally granted on July 4, 1944 as #2,353,063. Even before the patent was granted, he sent out sample tubes to 10 of the biggest Christmas light companies then in business, demonstrating how they could be incorporated in Christmas lights. Only one company, NOMA Electric, showed any interest. This patent, pictured at the right, plainly shows the now familiar style of NOMA's famous bubblers. Note that instead of using a wooden plug wedged in the bottom of the tube, a loose glass slug was substituted. Slightly concave on its underside, this plug held a small chamber of the bubbling liquid, methylene chloride, thinly and closely to the heat source, just as the wooden plug in the previous patent did. Also note that the light bulb picture in the patent drawing has a rounded top, whereas the lamps produced after the first couple of years incorporated a flat top to facilitate better heat transfer. CLICK HERE to see a cutaway picture of a NOMA prototype bubble light, and HERE to see a production model. Manufacturing rights to the patented device, as well as rights to Mr. Otis' previous one, were both purchased by the NOMA Electric Corporation, and Carl Otis was hired by them to further develop the bubbling lights.
A third patent for an "Ornamental Illuminating Device" was applied for by Mr. Otis on January 28, 1942 and granted as patent number 2,383,941 on September 4, 1945. Although quite similar to his previous efforts, it contains one important difference: a mass of bonded chemicals or glass beads was fixed to the bottom of the bubble tube instead of the wood or glass slug utilized in the previous patents. This mass served the same purpose as its predecessors-to hold small chambers of fluid close to the heat source to start the bubbling action quickly. Collectors today can find examples of both types of "bubble generators" in their NOMA tubes-the glass plugs and the chemical blobs. Due to the effects of time, most of the chemical blobs are now loose, and float around freely in the bubbling liquid. Originally, they were firmly affixed to the bottom of the bubble tubes. Carl noted in this last patent that the glass slugs produced an audible rattling noise when the lights were bubbling, and today examples of the slug-type of bubblers can be heard tinkling away happily on the branches of the family Christmas tree.
The onset of World War II prevented NOMA from marketing their lights until its conclusion, due to both wartime restrictions and materials shortages. The actual introduction date of the bubble lights is a bit of controversy, and there are collectors who claim either 1945 or 1946 as the first year of commercial sale. There are valid arguments for either year, and I personally do not have enough information to offer my own opinion. There is even a bit of speculation that a few experimental bubble lights were sold as early as the fall of 1942. At any rate, the very first NOMA biscuit style bubble lights can be easily identified, as the biscuit halves are held together by small metal clips attached at the ventilation holes. This method of attachment is not referred to in any of the patent drawings, and apparently was used for only a very short time. They are extremely hard for collectors to find. Another clue to an early bubble light is the name "Matchless" on the bottom of the light bulb base, referring to the manufacturer of the light bulbs used.
The other Christmas light manufacturers were watching the sales of NOMA's new product with great interest, and almost immediately began manufacturing their own versions of the popular light. Raylite, the second largest Christmas light manufacturer and maker of Paramount products, started making their own bubblers for sale during the 1947 Christmas season, calling them Kristal Snow Animated Candles. NOMA was not amused, and promptly sent them a warning letter of infringement, claiming that since they were the exclusive licensee of all three of Carl Otis' patents, Raylite was in violation of patent law. Raylite responded with claims asserting that Carl's patents were invalid. They filed court papers attempting to stop NOMA from further patent infringement claims against them. The battle lines had been drawn, and poor Carl Otis was stuck right in the middle of the mess.
While all of this was going on, a few of the Christmas lighting companies, including Raylite, offered NOMA a royalty of three cents for each light they produced. NOMA offered to split this three cents with Mr. Otis, but he refused. It was at this point that he became directly involved in the court cases, and intervened as a defendant. The District Court for the Southern District of New York rendered a judgment invalidating parts of Carl's patents, and he promptly appealed. The case suddenly became even more complicated.
As the proceedings dragged on, NOMA and Raylite agreed to drop their fight involving two of the patents, numbers 2,174,446 and 2,353,063 when it became clear that the court was sure to invalidate them. NOMA then promptly cancelled its license with Carl for both. Carl appealed this action and lost. Everything was now hinging on the validity of his sole remaining patent, number 2,383,941.
The crux of this patent was Carl's assertion that he had invented a new method for assuring that the bubbling action in the glass tube of the lights would be reliable, fast starting, and even. This was accomplished, he claimed, by either of the two methods covered in his last patent-the glass slug or the porous chemical mass fixed at the bottom of the tube. Carl testified that without either of these devices, the methylene chloride would either circulate within the tube and thereby fail to reach a boiling point, or produce an action known as "bumping", which is the accumulation and subsequent sudden release of a large mass of bubbles in an uneven and unattractive cycle. He claimed that his methods of isolating a small amount of liquid, bringing it rapidly to a boiling point and then controlling its release were unique and heretofore not previously addressed, anticipated or patented.
Raylite moved swiftly, presenting an earlier patent by Phillip Rosenblatt, number 2,278,383 that was granted on March 31, 1942, well before Carl Otis' patent of September 4, 1945. Rosenblatt's patent was for a "Display Device", and is pictured on the left. The specifics of this patent for a bubbling display address the "bumping" issue, and in fact the invention was presented specifically as a solution to that problem. His apparatus incorporated a wad of glass wool in the bottom of the fluid container and adjacent to the heat source, the effect of which assured even production and distribution of appropriately sized bubbles. Rosenblatt even went so far as to say that while glass wool was a preferred substance, materials like shot or glass beads could be used, both of which were mentioned in Carl's patent.
Carl argued that the specifics of Rosenblatt's patent included reference to a large bubble formed within the glass wool fibers, almost completely enclosing it. The outside liquid then enters the vapor space of the bubble, and is in turn vaporized itself, breaking away and forming a stream of bubbles. He related that his patent made no mention of a large, entrapped bubble, but relied on a process he called "superheating." The action in his bubbling tubes, he claimed, was far different than that in Rosenblatt's device.
The court disagreed. It felt that the process was essentially the same in both devices, whereby a small amount of liquid chemical is held close to a heat source, essentially apart from the main body of fluid. The court saw little difference in the effects of Rosenblatt's glass wool, or Otis' hardened and porous chemical mass. Poor Carl Otis' last remaining patent was promptly invalidated, and the court found it therefore unnecessary to determine any infringement on the part of Raylite. NOMA immediately terminated its licensing agreement with Otis, and although he appealed both the license termination and the court case, he lost. The final judgment against him was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit on February 2, 1950. The case had dragged on for almost four years. The final association agreement between Carl Otis and NOMA was terminated, and Carl received no further royalty payments from any Christmas lighting company.
Had Mr. Otis approached his patent from a different angle, one of the miniaturization of bubbling devices, perhaps the outcome of the court case would have been different. But the courts held that he had in actuality invented nothing, and Carl was the biggest loser, in effect receiving nothing for his invention. Raylite was a huge winner, as it was now free to market bubble lights as it saw fit, and did so in 1947. There is no evidence that NOMA ever entered into negotiations with Rosenblatt for the license to his patent, and they were now free to continue manufacture of their lights without any royalty payments to Carl Otis. Although they lost exclusive rights to the manufacture of bubbling lights, they had been first, and the NOMA name was well known. Millions upon millions of their bubbling lights would continue to be made up until the 1970s, and NOMA lights were always the best sellers of any of the various styles of bubbling lights. Literally hundreds of thousands of the lights remain in use today, still bubbling away, just as they first did during the 1940s.
Also see: The Bubble Lights Identification Page